House committee advances bill to change oversight of Idaho performance evaluations agency
Bill shifts responsibility from bipartisan committee to majority-controlled legislative committee
Rakesh Mohan, who has been the director of the Idaho Office of Performance Evaluations for 20 years, speaks to the House State Affairs Committee about the bill on Tuesday. (Ruth Brown/Idaho Reports)
This story was originally published on the Idaho Reports blog on Feb. 7, 2022.
The Idaho House State Affairs Committee moved forward a bill Tuesday to shift the oversight of the office responsible for evaluating government programs to a majority-controlled legislative committee.
The Office of Performance Evaluations could see changes in oversight should the bill make it through the Legislature. Only two legislators, both Democrats, voted against moving the bill forward.
Majority Leader Rep. Megan Blanksma, R-Hammett, brought the bill to make the change, House Bill 68, and characterized it as red tape reduction that would get rid of Joint Legislative Oversight Committee, or JLOC.
JLOC currently oversees the Office of Performance Evaluations, known as OPE. The bill would change that oversight to the Legislative Council.
This would create a notable difference, as JLOC is a bipartisan committee with an equal number of members from the two parties, including Republican and Democratic co-chairs. The state first created the JLOC committee in 1993.
The Legislative Council is made up of legislative leadership from both parties and is chaired by Republican leadership. The Legislative Council is responsible for administrative or management duties within the Legislature, while JLOC is solely responsible for overseeing and authorizing OPE to conduct independent performance evaluations of state agencies and programs.
Blanksma repeatedly stressed that members of Legislative Council are elected by both their constituents and leadership members are elected by their caucus members.
“I would argue that the minority is disproportionately represented on JLOC,” Blanksma said. “Transparency is important to everyone.”
The bill would also change the appointment of the OPE director. Currently, JLOC may appoint a director with 75% of the vote, and the bill would lower that bar to a simple majority.
Blanksma said the director of Legislative Services is currently appointed with a simple majority, so the bill aligns with that practice.
Rep. Brooke Green, D-Boise, expressed concern about whether the director would be able to present negative reports, knowing his or her career could be jeopardized.
“Right now, the studies that come out of OPE are uncomfortable to hear,” Green said. “They are often our colleagues telling us we need to fix systems in place that are impacting our communities and our state.”
She also questioned shifting oversight to a majority-controlled committee.
“What’s going to say that the folks that are actually in control are not going to want to hear what is being said?” Green asked. “They are not going to approve these evaluations.”
All testimony heard on Tuesday was in opposition to the bill, most focusing on the fact that JLOC is the only nonpartisan committee that Idaho has in place.
Diane Schwartz expressed concern about transparency if the bill passes. A prior OPE report brought forward the issue of the lack of representation for children in the system that she appreciated. She was concerned the change would remove objectivity and unbiased research.
“This bill, HB 68, will end the unbiased evaluation of governmental systems,” Schwartz said. “OPE is governed by a commission that is governed by both Republicans and Democrats, a truly bipartisan effort. I appreciate that.”
Rakesh Mohan, director of OPE, explained that currently any legislator or sometimes a group of legislators can request a study, and it’s up to JLOC to decide whether to move forward. In recent years, the education committees have requested studies by OPE regarding classified employees at schools.
OPE is responsible for deciding the scope of the study.
“Politics will always be there,” Mohan told the committee. “Let no one tell you that politics is not there when policymaking happens, or that politics is not in this building. Politics is going to always be there. To minimize that politics… because it cannot be eliminated, but to minimize that politics, there is no better system than having a Joint Legislative Oversight Committee with an equal number of both major parties and an equal number of House and Senate members.”
Blanksma stressed that the Legislative Council does still meet before the public.
“I appreciate that so many people think I am nefarious in doing this, but the fact of the matter is OPE remains independent and does the study itself,” Blanksma said. “Also, OPE is not allowed to do studies in Idaho state code. It’s very specific what they can do, and it’s performance audits and evaluations of any state agency. Not just studies.”
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Idaho House speaker: Intent of the bill is to ‘unweaponize’ office
The Speaker of the House is responsible for assigning members of the House to JLOC. Speaker Mike Moyle had not yet assigned two new members to JLOC this session, leaving the committee unable to meet.
In an interview with Idaho Reports last week, Moyle said the intent of the bill was to try to “unweaponize” OPE.
“I’ll give you an example. If somebody passes a bill and somebody doesn’t like it, they’ll get OPE to go out and do a study that says they did this, that or that wrong,” Moyle said on Thursday. “There’s been real concern with some of the members that the reports (from OPE) have not been totally neutral. Some of them almost like they’re biased.”
Most OPE reports in the past have been requested by Republican members and are voted on by the bipartisan committee.
The Senate already assigned its members to JLOC. In his most recent newsletter, released Saturday, Senate Majority Leader Sen. Kelly Anthon, R-Burley, mentioned the bill.
“There is some opposition to the bill given concerns over the perception of objectivity and neutrality if oversight shifts to the Legislative Council,” Anthon wrote.
The bill must still go before the House and Senate.
Meanwhile, OPE spent a year preparing a new report regarding the direct care workforce shortage, which cannot be presented until JLOC meets. The report request asked OPE to look at the shortage of direct care workers and to offer recommendations for policies the Legislature could address. That report was requested by former Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett.
Idaho Reports filed a record request for the report last week, but the report was still waiting on letters. OPE said it is waiting for “the formal responses to our draft report from the Governor and two state agencies – the Department of Health and Welfare and the State Independent Living Council.”
Idaho Reports will file another request this week for the report.
Another pending report out of OPE’s office came from the request of Rep. Marco Erickson, R-Idaho Falls; Rep. David Cannon, R-Blackfoot; and Rep. Lauren Necochea, D-Boise. The legislators requested a study on criminal justice and ways Idaho could reduce costs in the criminal justice system while promoting successful post-incarceration transition.
That report also can’t be presented until JLOC meets.
Idaho agency has examined education, health care and more
The evaluations coming out of OPE have examined a broad range of topics, including education, Medicaid, corrections, and child welfare. The evaluations are done at the request of any legislator, not just JLOC members.
Sometimes the reports result in lawmakers drafting legislation to address issues. Other times, they’re just informational.
In 2021, OPE published a report on public school buildings and their infrastructure. A 2022 report looked at K-12 school classified employees. Both of those subjects are now expected to spur legislation this year.
Other major changes to come following OPE reports in recent years include awareness about issues in the child welfare system and problems at the Southwest Idaho Treatment Center, a facility for seriously mentally ill people.
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